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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Screaming Fields of Sonic Love

I was lucky enough to see Sonic Youth live when they came to Fremantle two years ago, and me, my friend Tim, and about a hundred other people were able to witness the legendary New York band's characteristic mix of songcraft and noise. SY was one of the bands that during my high school years showed me that you could do a lot more with guitars than just produce generic riffs and chord changes, a revelation which inspired me to form my own band. Following their example (and that of Big Black, Xiu Xiu, Mogwai, and numerous others) I soon became obsessed with wringing as many kinds of noise and feedback from anything I could find, be it guitar, bass, turntables, or even found objects and improvised instruments.

So I was pleased when Tim called me the other day and told me he'd picked up their first three releases, the Sonic Youth EP, Confusion is Sex, and Bad Moon Rising. Pleased, but a little hesitant. My collection of SY albums used to begin with Sister, which I couldn't get into apart from opener 'Schizophrenia', and so I assumed their entire early output was junk. Turns out I couldn't have been more wrong. The Sonic Youth of these three albums feels like an entirely different band from the one that put out Daydream Nation and Dirty. Okay, not entirely different, just...more hardcore. Finally, finally, after years of waiting, here is stuff that satisfies my need for more Big Black material (read: insane treble-tuned guitars and cutting feedback). Clanging, abrasive, droning, and explosive are all terms that could characterize these three releases - but to my ears, this is pure pop music. The SY EP is actually much more sophisticated than most current post-rock releases and functions in terms of songs, not just atmospherics. Opener 'The Burning Spear' is post-punked out, jittery and chiming with a great bassline. How could they be this awesome in the early 80's? It sounds like it could be recorded now and it would still own. The live tracks appended to the EP also dominate; 'Destroyer' in particular and 'Where the Red Fern Grows' (which is nowhere near as pussy as the book it's named after, which if I remember right was about an Irish setter dying) contain awesome noise flipouts.

The Confusion is Sex album is nuts. They took what they learned from Glenn Branca in this one and turned it up ten notches. This has got to be the most intense of their early CDs. "(She's in a) Bad Mood", "The World Looks Red," "Protect Me You" and "I Want to Be Your Dog" are full-bore, spiralling through atmospheric, feedback-covered, alternate-tuning explorations. THIS IS THE WAY GUITARS SHOULD BE PLAYED. The production is thin, but you can't even tell because the instrumental output shreds speakers. While later 'mature' SY albums like Murray Street and Sonic Nurse would turn increasingly mellow, the prevailing mood on Confusion is Sex is one of fear, violence, and desperation - harrowing as all fuck, but with the promise of freedom at the end.

Bad Moon Rising is even more atmospheric, and with no real breaks functions almost like a continuous track, ending with the great 'Death Valley '69'. Like its predecessor, this album is built on guitar tones that sound categorically different from 90% of other bands (can't even imagine when this came out in the 80's!). This is a CD to have playing on late-night drives through a dark forest, or when you're all alone in the house and it's long past midnight.

Again, the Sonic Youth of these three releases seems almost like a complete band in and of itself, with no real need to turn into the SY that would go on to release the more mainstream stuff (which is still pretty 'off-center'). While it may be raw, there's nothing at all primitive about these recordings; nothing has dated and they display a sophistication and grasp of dynamics that a band with twice their experience (at the time) would be lucky to have. Anyone that is in any way "bored with guitars" (this includes Bjork) needs to listen to these albums and get shut-the-fuck-upped.

Swifty: Here's a music video of Death Valley 69.

And this is Sonic Youth's Myspace Page. No idea whether it's really them, or it's just a fan page.